|Twenty20 World Cup Qualifier, UAE 2012|
Ireland finish tournament in style
Nick Royle (Setanta)
Ireland are through to the ICC World Twenty20 in Sri Lanka after a convincing nine-wicket win over Namibia in the qualifying final on Saturday morning.
They then went one better by winning the whole tournament by beating Afghanistan by five wickets in the final proper in the afternoon.
Ireland restricted Namibia to 94-6, with Max Sorensen recording tournament best figures of 2-8 off four overs, in the crucial morning qualifier.
Paul Stirling clattered 59 not out off 32 balls as Ireland chased down the paltry total with 59 balls to spare.
Ireland then had to come back a couple of hours later to play a well-rested Afghanistan, in a game that risked being a case of After the Lord Mayor's Show.
Not a bit of it. What followed was probably one of the best games of cricket ever contested between two non-Test nations.
Afghanistan set a tough target of 153, with Mohammad Shahzad top-scoring with 77 in the score of 152-7 in their 20 overs.
It was a feisty contest, with the squat and opinionated Shahzad getting up the noses of both Trent Johnston and Boyd Rankin. A fired-up Rankin bowled extremely quickly at Shahzad, often aiming at his head, then he and Johnston clashed physically in the middle, with the corpulent Afghan inevitably coming off worse.
Stirling won the game almost single-handedly, hitting the fastest fifty in Irish cricket history for the second time in three days, and this time recording the second fastest t20 fifty in international cricket history, off just 17 balls.
He ended up on 79 of 38 balls before being caught by Gulbadin Naib off the bowling of Dawlat Zadran whilst attempting another massive six.
Andrew Poynter hit the winning runs as Ireland won by five wickets with seven balls to spare.
The win means that Ireland will meet Australia and the West Indies in Group B of the finals in Sri Lanka on September 19 and September 24 respectively.
Afghanistan will face defending champions England and reigning 50-over world champions India in Group A.
The World Cup win over England in March of last year remains the greatest moment in Irish cricket, but qualification to Twenty20 brings it on to the next stage.
Cricket Ireland have worthily focused on getting Ireland into the Test cricket by 2020. Test cricket remains the pinnacle of the game, but if they are aiming to increase participation levels in the sport, Twenty20 is the gateway.
Now Ireland will be performing in the biggest tournament of the most popular form of the game in September. They and Afghanistan will join the ten Test playing nations in the 20-day extravaganza. Stirling and George Dockrell will be able to show off their talents on a world stage. It will, temporarily at least, curb the talent drain to England.
Dockrell spoke before the 2011 World Cup of watching Ireland’s cricketers in 2007 as a 14-year-old and dreaming of joining them. How many more will watch the relentless power hitting of Stirling in September, and be inspired to pick up a bat for the first time?
Stirling was brilliant again against the Namibians and the Afghans. He recorded the fastest ever half century for his country against Canada on Thursday, taking just 21 balls. Today it took 26 balls to get to his fifty against Namibia, just 17 against the Afghans.
In the fifty over World Cup he did struggle against top-class Test nation opening bowlers. But he will be 18 months older in Sri Lanka, still baby-faced but no longer a new boy to international cricket. At the age of 21 he has already surpassed 100 caps for his country.
Since losing against Namibia in the first group game, Ireland have won ten successive games. In the knock-out stages they have been relentless, with the ten wicket win over Canada, the seven wicket victory over the Netherlands a a nine wicket win against the Africans on Saturday morning and the comprehensive run-chase against the Afghans.
Skipper William Porterfield has been innovative, and has led from the front. His catch to dismiss Netherlands’ opener Stephan Myburgh on Friday was inspirational, and set the tone for a flawless display which was carried into the games against Namibia and Afghanistan.
The Ireland skipper said that his side had hit top form at just the right time in the tournament.
"We have been clinical last couple of games,” he said. “It makes it a lot easier when Stirling is striking it at over 200. We had to come through the hard way through the group stage, but stepped up during the big stages.”